George James Silvester was born on September 7, 1894 in Ashton under Lyne. He was the oldest son of Alfred Edward and Sarah Silvester (née Mellor) who had married the previous year and made their family home at 227 King Street, Hurst, Ashton. Alfred was an educated man who was employed as a Clerk in a Cotton Mill Warehouse in Ashton and would eventually become an undermanager at the Mill.
George was educated at Hurst British School and, according to the headmaster J.W. Spencer, took the efficiency and progress prize each year he attended. By 1911 he was living with his parents, his brother Kenneth and younger sister Phyllis and working as a weaver at a cotton mill. His sister Isabel Fanny Silvester having died just under a year after she was born in 1896.
On November 25, 1912, a few weeks after his 18th birthday, he joined the 9th Battalion Manchester Regiment, Territorial Force as a Private (1358). At 5ft 8” tall he was bigger and better educated than many of the other enlisted men and so although younger than the old hands, was at some point promoted to Lance-Corporal. His career also progressed outside of the military becoming an Overlooker at Messrs. Whittaker’s Mills, Queen Street, Hurst.
At the outbreak of war, the battalion was mobilised and on August 20 they marched into Chesham Fold Camp, Bury. Throughout August around 100 new recruits were added, many of whom had previously served with the battalion in the pre-war years. On September 1, 1914 another 100+ men were added, many of whom were friends and family of the existing members of the battalion. On Wednesday September 9 the battalion entrained to Southampton and at midnight the following day sailed for Egypt. In Egypt the men were drilled, trained and worked hard to build fitness and endurance. Additionally, the old eight Company model (A-H) was replaced with a four Company model (A-D), 4 platoons in each Company and 4 sections in each platoon.
The battalion landed at Gallipoli under shell fire on Sunday May 9, 1915 and at that time George Silvester was a 20-year-old Lance-Corporal with “C” Company. Two days later he became the first recorded casualty of C company when he was hit in the leg by a stray bullet while the battalion was while the battalion was in brigade reserve in a line of trenches known as Backhouse Post trenches. He was treated at the field ambulance and remained with his unit.
On May 21 the battalion moved into the Redoubt Line trenches and the following day Lt-Col. D.H. Wade, the battalion’s commanding officer, was shot and wounded in the thigh while stepping over some sleeping men. Major Nowell assumed temporary command of the battalion. By the following evening, May 22, A and B Companies were in the firing line with C and D Companies in the reserve line. In preparation for the Third Battle of Krithia, the Allied forces started to undertake a series of coordinated and stealthy night operations to advance and straighten the firing line so that they could reach within striking distance of the Turkish positions. This night, a coordinated action was planned involving the 1/9th Manchesters in the centre, the 1/5th East Lancs on the battalion’s right and the 1/10th Manchesters on their left. The basic idea was to create a series of disconnected “firing pits” which could later be joined together to create a new “fire trench”. It was hard and dangerous work and many, if not all, of the men that went out that night were volunteers.
In the 9th Manchesters’ section, at least 32 men, (4 per platoon from C and D Companies), formed a digging party and a further 16 men were detailed to form a covering party. The covering party advanced first and took up position about 50 yards in front of the intended new line of trenches. They doubled out carrying rifle, bayonet, rations and half-filled sand bags for a semblance of cover. After a pause to allow enemy fire to die down, the digging parties went forward, carrying full entrenchment kit and supplies, spade, rifle, bayonet, rations and also with half-filled sandbags. The Turks became aware of the activity as soon as the covering parties left the Redoubt Line and opened fire but after a short time the firing stopped, the covering parties having been ordered not to return fire. However, as soon as the digging parties made their advance the Turks open a heavy fire which continued throughout the night causing a number of casualties.
Lance-Corporal Silvester, in the digging party and still carrying his wound from a few days earlier, saw that (1413) Pte. Thomas Penny had been wounded and crawled out to him under heavy fire and brought him 120 yards back to safety. He may have then repeated the act for two other men but regardless, when he had finished bringing in wounded men, he crawled back out and resumed digging.
Four months later, the Ashton Reporter carried a large article about several men of the 1/9th Battalion who had been recommended for decorations for their actions at Gallipoli, one of who was Lance-Corporal Silvester:
On the evening of May 25th Lance Corporal Silvester, Lance Corporal Wilde and a working party of about 30 soldiers were engaged in straightening up the line of trenches, when the enemy opened up with heavy fire. The working party lost five men killed and wounded. Silvester, although wounded, continued to carry out his duties and showed the highest courage in aiding the wounded under fire. By daybreak, they had achieved their objective, and were safely dug in.
Sergeant-Drummer Stopford, also of C Company and a neighbour of Silvester’s from Hurst, wrote a letter home to his wife where he said:
“I am very pleased to tell you that Sergt. Grantham and Corpl. Silvester have been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery in the trenches. … Corpl. Silvester got his for going out three times and carrying in wounded comrades under a heavy fire.”
In a letter home to his family near the end of July, Lance-Corporal Silvester said:
“It is quite true that I have been recommended for some decoration, but I can’t say whether I shall get it or not. Major Nowell (commanding officer) sent for me last week, and told me he was doing all he could to get it for me, and that General Prendergast [42nd Division CO] had promised to do what he could. I hope I shall get it as I know how you will feel.”
And around a week later in a letter dated August 8 he added:
“No doubt you will know by now that I am Corporal Silvester D.C.M. … The name of the man I carried was Private Penny. I am sorry to say he died of his injuries about a month later. I have not received the medal yet, I have it to come, but I am entitled to wear the ribbon now. I dare say it will be in the Reporter about the affair, but I don’t want to brag about it.”
Lance Corporal Silvester was awarded the DCM and was promoted to Sergeant. The following citation was published in the London Gazette on September 15, 1915, a week after his 21st birthday:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Although wounded on the 20th May he continued to perform his duties, and showed the highest courage on 25th May in aiding the wounded under fire.
It’s worth noting that the dates given in the official citation do not exactly match the dates provided contemporaneously from war diaries, personal diaries and letters home from the front. The balance of evidence shows that the dates in the official citation are wrong.
But before he was awarded the DCM, Cpl. Silvester was wounded for a second time. His name was present on the July 26, 1915 London Times Casualty List along with a number of other killed and wounded men of the 9th Manchesters. Unlike when he was wounded on May 11, this means that he left the peninsula for hospital treatment. In fact, in his letter home written “near the end of July”, excerpts of which were published in the Ashton Reporter, he references that he had been wounded twice and that “Jim Taylor’s son was in the same ward as myself”. It’s likely that Cpl. Silvester received a sufficiently serious but not life-threatening wound early in June, (perhaps in the bayonet charge of June 7), was medically evacuated to Egypt and returned to Gallipoli a few weeks later. If so, he was in good company. One other man also named on the same casualty list was 1192 Corporal Harry Trunkfield who was shot through the thigh on June 9th and medically evacuated to a hospital at Alexandria. By August 7 he was back in the thick of things at Gallipoli in the battle of Krithia Vineyard and subsequently received a congratulatory card from Major General Douglas for his actions that day.
On December 24, 1915 Sgt. Silvester was medically evacuated from Gallipoli after suffering his third wound of the campaign; a gunshot wound to the back. Unfortunately, this wound was far more serious than the previous two and it effectively marked the end of his military combat service. He spent several months recovering in hospital before becoming fit enough to embark for England on April 4, 1916.
Back in Ashton he was, quite rightly, treated as a hero and minor celebrity and on June 3 was presented with a gold watch by the overlookers and weavers of Messrs. Whittaker’s Mill, Hurst where he had been employed as an overlooker before the war. The watch was engraved “Presented to Sergt. G. Silvester, D.C.M., by the weavers and overlookers at Whittaker’s Mill, in commemoration of his gallantry.”
He underwent a long recovery but at some point after July 1917 he was pronounced permanently unfit for General Service but fit for home service. He transferred to Fort George, Guernsey as (2302) Sergeant-Instructor to the 2nd (Reserve) Battalion Royal Guernsey Light Infantry which was formed to receive and train recruits as replacements for casualties in the 1st Battalion which was then serving in France.
He must have impressed his superior officers because in May 1918 he was recommended for a commission in the regular forces and submitted his papers in early June. He was accepted and ordered to report to No 15 Officer Cadet Training battalion at Gidea Hall, Romford on July 5, 1918. He graduated in February 1919, his confidential report noting that he was “Conscientious and Hardworking. Rather unpolished but trustworthy and quiet in manner and should make a sound and reliable officer.”
He was duly commissioned as a temporary 2nd Lieutenant, effective March 3, 1919, to the 2nd Royal Guernsey Light Infantry Reserve of Officers. But since the war was now over, he returned to Ashton and resumed his civilian life. In May, the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors & Soldiers wrote to the War Office on his behalf requesting a pension payment of 6d per day in respect of his DCM. This was refused on the grounds that he had not been discharged on disability pension and so was required to accept only the £20 lump sum gratuity.
In October 1920 the 9th Battalion Manchester Regiment was re-formed and many former Officers, NCOs and men of the 1/9th Battalion re-joined. George Silvester was appointed Company Sergeant-Major but he was not a well man and on August 13, 1921 he died of Bright’s Disease at Ashton District Infirmary. He had been at Caernarfon Camp with the 9th Battalion and was taken ill there. Returning to Ashton on August 13th he was attended by a local Doctor and immediately moved to the Ashton Infirmary where he died shortly after admission. He was buried at Hurst Cemetery the following Wednesday, with his mother who had died in February that same year, and with his infant sister Isabel who had died in 1897. There was a large attendance at the funeral, the bearers being six sergeants of the 9th Battalion. The firing party was under the command of another battalion sergeant and the Last Post was sounded as he was laid to rest. George James Silvester, DCM was just 26 years old.
A year after his death, the London Gazette incongruously announced that he had relinquished his commission in the Reserve of Officers on completion of service on September 1, 1922 retaining the rank of Second Lieutenant. His gravestone at Hurst Cemetery records him for posterity as DCM winner and Company Sergeant Major in the 9th Manchester Regiment.